March is not typically a hectic month for East End realtors. Instead, the still-cold month generally marks the beginning of the region’s annual, slow-building crescendo—a crescendo that peaks on Memorial Day, sustains its volume through Labor Day, and then drops precipitously to a largely locals-only murmur.
Enter the woeful refrain of the year: Not so in 2020.
“Right away there was a dramatic change in activity,” says Ernie Cervi, regional senior vice president of Corcoran. “March is not an atypical selling season for us, but it quickly became a selling season on steroids. It was like a light switch went off. People decided they wanted to be here, they wanted to be here early, and it was our job to help them find a place to land.”
Of course, doing so wouldn’t prove an easy task. With ‘New York State on PAUSE’ executive orders in place, essentially shutting down all businesses statewide, from Manhattan to Montauk, Cervi and his colleagues were forced to find innovative ways to show properties to potential buyers, since the usual method—showing properties in person—was out.
“So everything immediately went online,” says Cervi. “We changed our system to accommodate virtual showings, as we couldn’t get into these houses due to the shutdown. You wouldn’t believe how many purchases, some at extremely high levels, were made sight unseen, without the buyer ever stepping foot inside the house.”
And who, given the means, could blame them? City residents at the time were watching, terrified, as their neighborhoods transformed into trenches; as the ordinarily electric cacophony of the city’s streets was replaced by the mournful wail of ambulances and the white-noise-like whirr of corpse-carrying refrigerator trucks. Of course they wanted to take refuge elsewhere. Somewhere quiet and safe and familiar—but still far away enough.
“I said it before and I’ll say it again,” says Cervi. “There is always a market on the East End, but from March on it became a market on steroids. And even now, after Labor Day, there are no signs of it slowing down.”
For people like Cervi, who work in real estate, this sudden, sustained swell in demand is great business. For many locals, however, it has been a great cause for concern. Who, they wondered in March, would feed all of these people? Where would they go? Where would they live? And who would ensure that they didn’t go too far? That the East End would still be the East End on the other side of this?
The answer to every question, at least in part, was—and remains—the Peconic Land Trust.
“Starting in early March, we were getting a lot—a lot—of people reaching out to us, asking about the availability of our produce,” says Layton Guenther, director of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, one of the first Community Supported Agriculture farms in New York State, which is a stewardship project of the Peconic Land Trust. “We were getting messages on Instagram, calls to the office, and all sorts of emails. We don’t have a public-facing farmstand, so a lot of people were reaching out, essentially asking us to feed them. That is not typical, obviously, and marked the first twist in a season so full of twists and turns that it would take me at least 30 minutes to even roughly describe all of them.”
So many calls, so much commotion; it was, Guenther admits, a particular kind of chaos amid an unprecedented time of crisis. Guenther knew that the only way out would be through. So they and their team at Quail Hill decided to do what they always do: Function as a community farm and actively feed the community.
“Luckily, the 2019-2020 winter was very mild, so we were in a unique position in the early spring to organize an ad hoc, pay-what-you-can distribution,” says Guenther. “If the climate weren’t warming, we wouldn’t have had so much stuff to pick from, so the fact that we were able to provide weekly distributions for 8 weeks—for most of March and all of April—with no questions asked, was the first silver lining of the season.”
Here was the second: At the same time that the farm was being inundated with calls from community members, Guenther and their team at Quail Hill had the opportunity to write a grant to partner with the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreational Center, which serves children in the local community, and supply fresh produce to their Covid-19 food pantry. As a result, the center’s food pantry, which pre-Covid served 70 people a month, was able to feed over 700 people a week.
“It is always my hope that the work we do is in the interest of building community cohesion, which is obviously difficult when the size and scope of the community changes so rapidly, as it did in March,” says Guenther. “But through this partnership with the Bridgehampton Children’s Center, we were able to see that the work we’re doing was doing its job, that we were able to see that cohesion. And it was amazing to see, too, that the farm itself really stepped into its own in terms of understanding how much it can output. It was like we asked ourselves: What is the carrying capacity of this land? Once we figured that out, we were able to just do the work and see, ourselves, as it provided in a really impactful way in a year that desperately called for it. It’s something I was incredibly humbled by, and still am.”
Humbled, too, were East End locals and transplants alike. With shuttered restaurants and empty supermarket shelves, amid food and supply shortages not only regionally but nationwide, residents turned to local farms at rates never before seen. On the North Fork, for example, from March through May, Sang Lee Farms’ online ordering inventory sold out within minutes each and every week. Suddenly “Know Your Farmer” returned from a well-intentioned, bumper-sticker-friendly slogan to what it’s always, in reality, been: a necessary, sustaining pillar of life.
“Without local farms, what would the pandemic out here have looked like?” says Guenther. “It’s impossible to imagine. But it’s also impossible to imagine how farming here would be possible in the first place without the Peconic Land Trust.”
Since its founding in 1983, the Peconic Land Trust has partnered with landowners, local governments and similarly minded organizations to protect 13,000 acres of land on Long Island, conserving East End green spaces and ensuring the preservation—and continued food production use—of our region’s working farms. It is challenging work anywhere—as farming, not just nationally but globally, becomes more difficult due to climate change, just as land is growing simultaneously more expensive and scarce—but on the East End, home to some of the most limited and lusted after land in the world, it is much more nearly grueling. Whereas the average price of one acre of preserved farmland, nationally, is $2,500, on the East End, that same acre on average costs over $200,000. A mountainesque hurdle, according to Guenther, that no farmer would be able to scale unless they inherited land in the first place, or were independently wealthy to start.
“I say this to my colleagues in the land trust community all the time: This is conservation in the fast lane and you always have to be thinking outside the box,” says John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust. “So in that sense, I think we have actually been preparing for this moment [with the Covid-19 pandemic] even though we didn’t know it.”
“All the public [land preservation] programs that were made in the 70s and 80s never anticipated that there would be a market for farmland for non-farmers,” Halsey continues. “There was just this basic assumption: We’re doing this to protect farmland for farming; there’s no need to impose an affirmative farming covenant; now that it’s protected, you have to farm it. But here, we had reason to suspect that wasn’t true and we were right. One of the things we’ve seen on the South Fork, and probably will see on the North Fork in the future, is that the value of protected farmland is increasing, and what’s driving that isn’t the food production farmers. Instead, non-farmers are acquiring the protected farmland, not for agricultural production, but for protection, for buffer.”
This foresight allowed the Peconic Land Trust to prepare, however unwittingly, for the influx of new East End residents amid Covid-19: By enforcing affirmative farming requirements on protected land, thereby ensuring that whoever purchased the parcel would actively need to farm it in a way that produced food.
“That’s an example of our thinking outside the box,” says Halsey. “These restrictions naturally reduce the value of protected farmland and allow farmers to get to a place where they can own their own land and control their own destiny. There’s so much pressure within farming families to sell for wealth. So many dynamics are in play. It’s not just about protecting the farmland; it’s about protecting it for whom and for what? That’s where our Farms for the Future initiative comes in.”
Grounded in the belief that farming on Long Island is essential—for reasons economic, ecological and cultural—Farms for the Future was founded in 2008 as a formal initiative of the Peconic Land Trust to not only protect farmland threatened by development, but to also increase the inventory of the farmland available by buying new parcels, protecting them, and then leasing or reselling them to farmers at rates they could actually afford.
“The reality is that you have to be proactive,” says Halsey. “We have to be out there and available to work with people who are confronted with transition planning with their own farms, to make sure that we’re giving them the full range of options. Because if we don’t change the status quo, we will have very farmers producing food on the South Fork, in particular, within a generation. And if this challenging time has made one thing abundantly clear it’s that access to food is of the utmost importance, and that we have to ensure that everyone has access to it, especially those who can’t spend extra money for it.”
At Quail Hill Farm, Guenther wholeheartedly agrees.
“If anything has taught me anything about this year, a year during which we’ve had a big increase in new farm members here at Quail Hill, it’s that between the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement and all the other crises of the year, a lot of people have opened their eyes to the value of being present in their homes and in their relationships and in their communities. My hope is that the people who move here, who are people of means, who are effectively gentrifiers, have the breadth of mind to see how they can add to the community and not just pillage it. Because 2021 isn’t going to be rainbows and butterflies, and we’re going to need a real cohesion of community to get us through it.”
Thankfully, Halsey and the Peconic Land Trust are up for the challenge.
“I don’t feel like I’ve ever been busier than I am right now,” Halsey laughs. “There’s just a lot going on and that’s a good thing. Getting it all done will be the challenge, but we’re going to keep working and looking for opportunities to make everyone’s efforts more successful and productive. That’s the work and it’s a privilege to do it.”
So what does the future look like for a changing, more crowded, less seasonal East End? Only time will tell—but everyone, from old and new residents to farmers like Guenther, from organizations like the Peconic Land Trust to real estate moguls like Ernie Cervi, is hoping for the same thing: That the East End will always remain home to the beautiful green spaces, farms and farmers that have made the region so attractive in the first place—and that it will feed, literally and otherwise, all the people who call it home, whatever their means.
“There are so many other places you can go that don’t have any of what we have,” says Cervi. “Places without our culture, our sophistication, our diversity. It’s in everyone’s best interests to preserve that.”